- Why Is Mindfulness Important Right Now?
- What Is Mindfulness?
- Why Are Mindfulness Apps So Popular?
- Top 7 Mindfulness & Meditation Apps
- Ways of Using Mindfulness Apps
Why Is Mindfulness Important Right Now?
2017 has been a very stressful year, and learning to take the time take stock of our internal worlds is something that many of us should do as soon as we can. Calm is in short supply, and many of us feel that our health is suffering under the constant onslaught of modern life. Modern life is high-pressured, noisy and often frenetic. Most of us have obligations and responsibilities that mean we do not have many opportunities to calm down and just breathe. In this context, mindfulness apps offer a way for us to make time for ourselves in a way that fits into our schedule - and, by extension, to learn how to be mindful in and about our everyday lives.
What Is Mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, student of prominent Buddhist teachers, and author of the book “Wherever You Go, There You Are”, defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experiencing, moment by moment”.
Mindfulness in this sense, is not about feeling good, but constantly observing and staying with what is arising in the mind and body without trying to change anything or attain any particular state. Paradoxically, it is in the non-attachment to outcome that allows the mind and body to relax and eventually achieve a state of increased calm, concentration, and clarity.
The effects of mindfulness include improvements in mental and cognitive well-being, such as reduced stress, improved memory, and better decision-making. Physiological benefits like reduced blood pressure, better sleep, and deeper breathing can also be experienced, as well as improvements in relationships through increased patience, kinder treatment of the self and others, and more empathy.
It bears to mention that in Buddhist teachings, there is Right Mindfulness and Wrong Mindfulness. The distinction between Right Mindfulness and Wrong Mindfulness is whether the quality of awareness is characterized by wholesome intentions and positive mental qualities, guided by self-restraint, wholesome mental states, and ethical behaviours. An example would be to consider the difference between the mindfulness of attention and concentration of someone committing a crime, versus someone going through their regular daily activities.
Why Are Mindfulness Apps So Popular?
… No doubt the Buddha, who taught a middle way between worldly and spiritual concerns, would have agreed that there is a time for using mindfulness to discover inner truths, a time for using it to survive a battle or an exam and a time to let go of mindfulness so that the mind may wander the universe.
Today, many people would first turn to their iPhone or Android device to see if there is an app that can help with starting, or staying engaged with meditation, as well as providing a way to track their progress and make meditation more appealing by connecting fellow practitioners and friends.
In addition to the many apps that exist, even within each app there are often a multitude of options for exactly the kind of meditations you can do. With so much choice, how can you decide which app to use, and when to use it?
Different apps have different areas of focus, which can include relaxation, calm, stress reduction, awareness, concentration, or offer specific topics such as dealing with anxiety from cancer, anger management, or performance at work.
The premium version of some apps will often offer additional features or meditation tracks for a specific objective such as mindfulness for commuting, sports, or health. Membership can be on a monthly, annual, or lifetime basis, or be on a per track basis.
The customizable aspect of many of these apps is also appealing to an audience that is used to having a range of choice, and being able to select exactly the kind of meditation practice that suits what they are experiencing in the moment. Short sessions of 3-20 minutes also helps to fit a little bit of mindfulness into busy schedules.
A World of Choice - the 7 Most Popular Mindfulness & Meditation Apps
iOS and Android apps such as Headspace, Omvana, Stop, Breathe And Think, Aura, and Calm are highly ranked in this comprehensive review. These mindfulness apps are popular because they make a traditionally ascetic practice more accessible to an audience that may be new to the idea of meditation. Specific meditations for present-day situations, such as flight preparation, technology usage, or emergency relaxation are tailored to users looking to become more mindful in a fast-paced, digital world. The apps listed below all have very usable free versions, with the option of premium membership to unlock certain features.
With the option to set the scene with different background sounds, like birdsong on a mountain lake, a crackling fireplace, evening crickets, or plains of wheat, Calm’s main purpose is to induce relaxation. It includes several choices of synthesized music with beat frequencies for certain mind states: achieving focus, relaxation, or sleep.
Further on the topic of sleep, Calm offers Sleep Stories, peaceful 30 minute stories read by lulling, resonant voices, with narrators like Stephen Fry. Calm offers tracks like 7 days of self esteem, mindfulness for college students, stress management, and many others. Calm, which is available for Apple and Android devices, can also be given as a gift. Apart from the abovementioned usefulness for sleep, the Calm website offers a free-to-use guided breathing exercise.
With a layout and premise similar to iTunes, Omvana presents you with a store where you can choose tracks to download into your Library. Tracks can be from many different instructors, each with their own style and technique. This can lend a diversity of experiences to the app, but also give the sense of inconsistency between instructor styles, and can detract from the continuity of having one main guide.
Omvana allows you to mix ambient music to whichever vocal track you use - an option which may seem to increase options for the personalization of meditatations, but can prove to be more of a distraction, as you can spend more time playing with the mixer than you do attending to mindfulness. You also have the option to record your own voice, and mix it with the ambient music, which can be helpful if you are creating your own tracks.
As an app which tries to offer something for everyone, Omvana’s design leaves more of an impression of a ‘marketplace’ than the unifying look and feel of other apps with a singular focus. It is not immediately clear how you should start with the app, or how to use it, and the many options it offers are not laid out to intuitively understand how best to progress through the tracks.
A mobile version of this app is available for iPhone (iOS) and Android devices.
The premise of Aura is to have a new, personalized 3 minute mindfulness session (or 7 minutes for premium users) every day, which doesn’t repeat. Aura begins with a personalization process which uses your age, experience with meditation, and intent with mindfulness to select a track for you to start with. You must proceed through the meditation of the day (no skipping!) in order to access other tracks. Aura also includes a Gratitude Log which will display a running log of your gratitude entries on the screen.
One of the few apps which include the option to connect with the community, Aura offers an in-app forum where you can connect with teachers, and other students. You can also follow specific teachers in their channels.
Offering custom meditations for all times of day and a plethora of situations, Buddhify is a low-cost app aimed at enabling people to fit mindfulness into busy schedules. It offers guided meditations from five to thirty minutes long, over 80 background tracks, and the option of a solo unguided meditation timer.
Buddhify has a smooth, easy-to-use interface aimed at making starting your mindfulness exercises as seamless as possible. One drawback may be that this app has more instructors doing more talking than is the case on, for example, Headspace or Calm. However, many users, particularly newcomers to meditation, find it indispensable.
The application is available for iOS (iPhone / iPad), as well as Android, and is great for users who battle with insomnia, trouble falling asleep, and crowded environments.
Stop, Breathe and Think
Engaging introductory graphics, and a clear and intuitive design make Stop, Breathe & Think a streamlined and accessible app. Simple interactive features, such as dimming the phone screen for 10 seconds while you check in with yourself before meditating, create a process where engaging with the app actually contributes toward a reflective mindset.
Checking in is done prior to each session, where you are prompted to select your physical and mental state, as well as identify which emotions you are experiencing in the moment. You are provided with a list of emotions in categories ranging from pleasant to unpleasant, and simply the act of identifying what you are feeling already puts you in a state of readiness for the practice of mindfulness.
Based on your self-report, the app will recommend meditations on a theme, ranging from building compassion to gaining resilience, to broadening perspective, and a number of others, including yoga videos, or mindfulness tracks for children. You have a choice between Jamie and Grecco, a female or male voice to narrate your track. Your progress is closely tracked, and you can monitor your most frequently reported emotions, as well as how they change with meditation.
In addition, Stop, Breathe & Think offers a Breathing Timer, and a Meditation Timer. The Breathing Timer can be used to purposefully change the rhythm of your breathing with the use of a visual timer of a ball spinning around a track that guides you to modify the inhale and exhale length of your breaths. The Meditation Timer is customizable in length of session, with several soundscape options.
One of the most popular mindfulness apps, Headspace calls itself a gym membership for the mind. All students begin with the foundational series, a set of 10 sessions of 3-10 minutes each, accompanied by animations introducing the mindfulness technique. With a simple, colorful, and playful design, as well as one consistent instructor, Andy, Headspace feels unintimidating, friendly, and fun to use.
Once you have completed the foundational pack, you gain access to other packs, like Patience, Creativity, Restlessness, and many others. Each pack includes animations which explain the techniques to be used, such as noting, visualization, or body scan. Packs in Headspace range from 10-30 sessions, and also feature singles, such as SOS for mental emergencies, interviews, and recovery after sports. Each pack can be downloaded for offline use.
The progress tracker will keep track of which packs you are currently working on, and which ones you have completed, as well as a running history of every session you have done. You can also follow up to 5 friends in Headspace to keep each other motivated.
Headspace also has a feature to send you mindful moment notifications - little thoughts of the day that complement your practice and remind you to bring it into every moment.
Debuting in October 2017, Kevin Rose’s Oak app is intended to start users off with guided exercises and gradually equip them for unguided meditation. The idea is that “monks don’t use meditation apps”: Oak aims to teach users the fundamentals needed to do meditations without needing to use an app. Mindfulness training is only the beginning for Oak, which will add other disciplines, such as transcendental meditation, in the future.
Oak allows its users to feel like they are part of a community (the app provides stats on how many users are currently meditating). It also keeps track of your own progress, with streaks and the total amount of time spent practicing, including minutes meditated and breaths taken.
This app is one of the most minimalist ones out there, with a simple aim and interface. Oak allows meditation sessions as short as ten minutes or as long as thirty - or you can opt for the unguided, untimed meditation option. You can set your own beginning and end times, and enjoy uninterrupted unguided meditation within natural aural environments. The app also offers options users who are too time-poor for full meditations, in the form of guided pranayama breathing exercises. Oak is free to download and use, and is currently available for iPhone on iOS.
Ways of Using Mindfulness Apps
- Some apps have a leaderboard where you can see how much you are meditating compared to your friends. While competition is not the point, it can be motivating to hold each other accountable in a virtual way if you are not meditating in the same space.
- Organize a meditation break group at work where you all use the same app to meditate in a space together, so that you have a built-in community who will help you to maintain the structure of a mindfulness session every day.
- Find a meditation partner on the internet, with whom you will agree to meditate every day at the same time, and check in with each other that you do.
- Some apps include options of practicing mindfulness while walking, commuting, driving, or cooking, thereby introducing an element of integration with everyday life, which is the ultimate goal of meditation - to be able to do it in every moment, not only when you retreat from the distractions of the world.
Benefits of Using Mindfulness Apps
Mindfulness meditation has traditionally been an austere practice that required devotees to isolate themselves from the rest of the world, fully committing themselves for a period of time in order to firmly establish a practice that they could eventually bring back into their regular lives. Understandably, this proves to be a barrier for people who cannot dedicate the time or take a break from their responsibilities.
Mobile technology provides an easily accessible introduction to the principles of the practice, as well as a gamified experience of meditation. This can help beginners, or people with busy schedules to build and maintain a solid mindful practice. The pleasing aesthetic of a well-designed app can also entice the meditator to set time aside to engage with the practice.
Like any other practice, mindfulness requires a commitment to develop into a self-sustaining habit. Mindfulness apps can send you daily notifications at specific times to remind you when it is time for your daily sitting. Consistently meditating for a few minutes every day will generate more long-term benefits than sitting for an hour every once in awhile.
Drawbacks of Using Meditation Apps
In an ever-expanding digital universe, there are bound to be apps that make unverifiable claims, such as “Using this app for 10 minutes a day will change your life!” Without the research data to back these claims up, and a system of accountability that is still catching up to the speed of app development, mindfulness apps can be subject to the same influences of marketing and sales as any other digital trend.
Lack of Feedback
Even with video and audio guides, the techniques of mindfulness can be difficult to learn without feedback from a live instructor who can offer on-the-spot guidance, or correct a meditator’s posture while sitting. Using only an app, a meditator is not able to ask questions if there are issues that arise during the practice.
The recent resurgence of interest in the ancient practice of mindfulness may be largely down to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed mindfulness-based stress reduction programmes foir schools, the military and various other environments in the later 1970s. However, since then, many other practitioners and promoters have taken up promoting various mindful practices.
What makes some of the available apps engaging can also prevent people from developing a deeper practice. An appealing design with a gamified experience where 10 minutes a day moves you up the leaderboard can give the impression that you are ‘progressing’. Without the right kind of feedback or accurate measurement of change, there is no way to accurately determine if a meditator is integrating the lessons of meditation into their daily lives.
It can also be easy to fall into the trap of ‘the magic pill’ - the idea that just because you are regularly listening to guided meditations while sitting, that you are in fact ‘meditating’ when there is nothing that guarantees progress except actual, correct practice, with or without the use of an app. One of the pitfalls of using a meditation tool external to the bare minimum of sitting and observing yourself, is that you can grow reliant on the app and find yourself unable to meditate without it.
In addition, the risk when apps are pressured to stay attractive to an audience that is used to being stimulated and entertained, is that there is an incentive to try to offer something for everyone by creating a variety of tracks for every situation, mindset, or emotion. In this way, it can seem that the audio track in question is more of a soundtrack to accompany your current state, rather than a fundamental practice that does not need customization, and can be applied just as it is to any circumstance of life.
Indeed, some have criticized the ‘McMindfulness’ trend for for over-simplifying an age-old tradition into a clickable experience, where engagement with the app may be more prominent than engagement with the actual practice itself.
It can be tempting to believe that an app will guide you the right mental state, when in fact, mindfulness is really about you doing the work of observing yourself and becoming aware of what arises from moment to moment, without attachment to any particular state. After all, mindfulness at its core, is simply the practice of cultivating one’s attention to the present, in any and all situations. Over-customization can thus distract from the central purpose of a mindfulness practice.
As Good as the Real Thing?
As mentioned above, there are many facets of instructor feedback that would be missing from only using an app, and even a regular 10 minute a day practice would still be a shallower experience than a full retreat where you are spending your time exclusively learning to correctly perform the mindfulness technique.
It can be easy to have the impression that using mindfulness apps approximates what a more intensive experience would be, and can thus maintain people at a certain level of comfort where they do not feel the need to seek a more thorough and immersive training or education. Along the same lines, the belief that you are doing something that is supposed to help depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues may cause you to not seek professional help for them sooner.
Lifehacker. “What Is “Mindfulness,” and Why Is Everyone Talking About It?” January 14, 2014. Accessed September 27, 2017. ↩ ↩2